This is a guest post by a (necessarily) anonymous priest of the Church of England.
Can I be a Christian and a Conservative?
A question which, 50 years ago, it would probably not have occurred to anyone to ask. First, because the answer to it was obviously “yes” – there were plainly plenty of people who were both, some prominently so. And secondly, because the question would have seemed unaskably insulting. One didn’t publicly question the confessed faith of a fellow Christian, even if one harboured private doubts about aspects of his or her life or behaviour. It might be understandable to wonder about the faith of one who simultaneously espoused Christianity and a political position which explicitly rejected the validity of religious faith, eg Communism; but to accuse even them of not being Christian if they claimed to be would have seemed the height of arrogance. Their faith was a matter between them and their Saviour, and intrusion into this area – by anyone except those from whom they might seek ghostly counsel – would have constituted a gross discourtesy.
So when did this change? And how is it that the confessed Christian faith of a Marxist has become less open to question than that of a Tory? I ask, because my Christian credentials have been challenged more fiercely in the aftermath of the 2015 UK General Election than they were when I was undergoing the (rigorous) discernment and formational processes for ordination in the Church of England – or indeed, I believe, before or since.
This is partly, without doubt, an aspect of the growth of social media and my engagement with them. If I choose to reveal my political or religious outlook (or both) to online contacts whom I may not know personally, I am at the very least implicitly tolerating disagreement with them. Some kind souls will keep their counsel even if they do disagree; and there is perhaps more rejoicing in heaven over one wounding riposte not tweeted than any number of helpful Bible verses or pious reminders in 140 characters of one’s religious duty. But I enter into the fray forewarned, and I must not expect to be allowed to opine unchallenged.
However, my faith in Jesus Christ and my adherence to His Church is what I confess above and beyond all else. It is of a transcendingly different order to my political convictions and social attitudes; and no-one – but no-one – is permitted to tell me that I am not a Christian. Yet there are some who are not inhibited by this; who are pleased to tell me, publicly, that my Tory vote in the General Election is proof not just of my selfish indifference to the plight of the poor (for instance) but of my unfitness to call myself a Christian. These critics appear to be quite untroubled by the self-righteousness and arrogance they display, nor by the calibre of the offence they give.
And I’m not just talking about celebrity clergy and the other usual suspects. The vicar of X (“husband, dad and all round nice bloke”) tweets: “If you’re a Christian, and you voted Tory yesterday, and you see me in the next 48-72 hours, it would be a good idea not to mention it.” A reply comes back: “Can you ban them from Communion?” The “all round nice bloke” replies: “Sadly not, praying that desire to beat them with a crowbar shouting ‘what were you thinking?’ will subside after some sleep.” It occurs to me that some of this priest’s parishioners will probably have voted Conservative and perhaps follow him on Twitter. I wonder how these sheep of his flock feel about how their shepherd feels about them?
We are all capable of writing (or even saying) something on the spur of an angry or disappointed moment that we might think better of later. That is human enough. We might also indulge in a bit of what the late Bernard Levin termed “moral vanity”: a lay Christian tweeted angrily that she felt nothing less than “grief” after the election on the grounds that “people will suffer and die because of this result”; and that “if voicing that concern (makes) Tory voters uncomfortable then perhaps they’ll reconsider their priorities next time”. Well, when that time comes, we won’t be able to say we weren’t told.
I am entirely happy to accept that there is a lot of ignorance, prejudice, perhaps even stupidity at work here. It may be that some instinctively left-wing Christians don’t understand what more conservative-minded ones believe about the best way to alleviate poverty and to protect the vulnerable (or indeed what other concerns or priorities may have influenced their votes at this election). It may be that they don’t care to enquire, comfortable in their own cherished attitudes and sense of righteousness. If so, that is rather sad; but it does, I suppose, reflect fairly accurately how wider society interrelates these days. But we are Christians, aren’t we? Surely it is not to be so among us?